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Book Reviews

We Lead, Others Follow: First Canadian Division 1914-1918

by Kenneth Radley

St. Catharines, Ontario: Vanwell, 2006
192 pages (hardcover), $ 49.95

Reviewed by Craig Mantle

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Book CoverIn the aftermath of the First World War, veterans, next-of-kin, and community notables aided and abetted the process of remembering the recent sacrifices by publishing a sea of regimental histories. Rarely critical or probing, these “official” documents recorded key details in a unit’s history – personalities and awards, movements, and victories – and oftentimes provided a “Roll of Honour” to preserve forever the names of those who had served in its ranks, no matter how briefly. However, with the passage of time, the writing of such histories, much like the writing of military history itself, generally fell into disfavour. Yet, over the last decade or so, a number of published and unpublished accounts have surfaced that describe a particular unit in terms of its internal workings and accomplishments in the field. Kenneth Radley’s recent book on the 1st Division of the Canadian Corps, Canada’s army in France, can now be added to this growing list, and, importantly, it is the first published work that focuses on an entire Canadian division from the Great War.

Based upon a wide range of sources, both archival and published, Radley argues convincingly that an increasing competence in the realms of command and control, staff work, and training facilitated the gradual growth of 1st Division from a rag-tag assemblage of would-be soldiers with a smattering of regulars, both British and Canadian, into a solid and feared formation. The ultimate evidence of 1st Division’s prowess was its stellar performance during the “Last 100 Days” that concluded the war. Because of the topics that he investigates, senior officers – the General Officers Commanding and Brigade Majors, for instance – are inevitably discussed to a greater extent than the common soldier, although a companion volume is now in preparation that will focus upon the experiences of the more junior ranks. For many of the same reasons, moreover, his work is essentially an administrative history of 1st Division, rather than a traditional “guns and trumpets” account of its participation in particular battles. Engagements, when they are mentioned, are used to assess the division’s competence in terms of the three main foci of this work.

In order to situate his analysis, Radley takes great pains to describe the context within which 1st Division’s evolution took place. The system of staff work and training throughout the entire British Expeditionary Force, for example, are first described at considerable length before a study specific to 1st Division is even attempted. While interesting and valuable – indeed, few works devote so much attention to the labours of the much-maligned staff officer or the utility of the various training establishments – such background discussions tend to distract the reader from the declared focus of the work, namely, the division itself. With so much emphasis upon context, the book, at times, reads like a general history of these topics, rather than a focused analysis of how command and control, staff work, and training operated within this single formation.

Of more significant concern, however, is Radley’s bias for his subject, a prejudice that is evident in the first two lines of his Preface. Implicit in his overall argument is the contention that the division, through its trials and errors in coming to terms with the complexities of command, staff work, and training, stood as a model for the remaining three divisions of the Canadian Corps to copy, and to emulate when they arrived at the front, thereby saving themselves the agony of learning these lessons on their own. While he does an admirable job of describing the route trodden by the division (the “We Lead” part of his title), he fails to show how exactly these efforts influenced the other divisions (the “Others Follow” segment). Subsequent divisions undoubtedly benefited from these hard- learned lessons, and yet Radley devotes little effort toward directly showing these results. Because his work lacks a comparative perspective with or even serious mention of the other comparable formations – omissions that were freely and willingly made – the reader is more or less forced to accept one of his main arguments at face value. Such an approach as Radley has taken implies that the other divisions did very little learning of their own and that the 1st Division, simply because it was the first in the field, and the first to develop adequate solutions to these pressing problems, had little if anything to learn from its contemporaries. These are contentions that are highly suspect.

These objections aside, Radley freely and refreshingly acknowledges the debt owed by the Canadians to the British. Especially in the context of staff work, he is keen to observe that British officers held the majority of senior appointments within the Canadian Corps, and, by extension, the 1st Division throughout the war, and that they continually tutored and mentored their Canadian counterparts until the latter were competent enough to act on their own. He is equally as free in his acknowledgement of the British contribution to the training of all Canadian soldiers, officers and men alike. Without the British, he frequently suggests, the Canadians’ path to effectiveness would have taken much longer and would have cost considerably more.

A professional officer formerly with The Queen’s Own Rifles of Canada, Radley offers an interesting account of certain aspects of 1st Division’s evolution during the First World War, and he reveals much about certain subjects that earlier historians have all but neglected. Those seeking to understand how battles were actually made possible – moving trained and equipped soldiers to a specific location for a specific time to be well commanded in battle – will find his analysis enlightening, useful, and widely applicable. A well-written and articulate study, We Lead, Others Follow has adopted a unique approach to the writing of unit histories that goes beyond conventional accounts of movements and casualties, and it reinforces the truth that continual strings of victories are possible only through hard work and hard learning.

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Craig Leslie Mantle is a Research Officer with the Canadian Forces Leadership Institute at the Canadian Defence Academy.